I date the addition of fennel to my kitchen garden to our first travels in Italy in the late nineteen-eighties. At one meal with friends near Venice, we enjoyed a simple green salad garnished with thin, curved anise-flavored slices, crisp like celery but better: raw fennel. And on mixed vegetable platters offered in the city’s restaurants, one of the grilled vegetables looked like a fanned out wedge of onion but its caramelized sweetness had hints of anise and licorice: fennel again or finocchio as the Italians called it. I knew I had to grow this vegetable.
My first source for fennel seed was Renee Shepherd’s Shepherd’s Garden Seeds and the variety was Zefa Fino. Later, I found fennel seeds in Territorial Seed’s catalog where Zefa Fino and Perfection were offered. Since then, I’ve grown both varieties. Territorial offers organic seeds of Perfection and Fedco offers seeds of Zefa Fino. They each grow well in my kitchen garden. Both varieties are listed as “bulb fennel” to distinguish them from herb fennel grown for seeds.
I plant fennel in spring and again in the fall. In the spring, I usually start seeds every few weeks so I’ll have a steady supply starting in mid-June. This year, I started seeds indoors on March first, again on March twenty-sixth and once more on April fourteenth, setting out each group of a dozen or so plants three or four weeks after indoor seeding. On April twenty-second, I planted more fennel seeds, this time outdoors and in mid-July I’ll do a final planting of seeds outdoors to have a good supply for fall.
Some garden books advise against starting fennel indoors and transplanting, suggesting that any disruption of the roots will cause the bulbs to bolt early, but in the years that I’ve planted fennel, both indoors and out, I haven’t experienced early bolting. I set out plants or plant seeds eight inches apart in rows a foot apart. Fennel grows best in my garden in cool weather with moist soil, so this year has been a great year for fennel. Even in warmer years, though, keeping the soil moist and mulched has resulted in tasty fennel.
In the kitchen, it’s always hard to decide whether to make a raw fennel salad or to grill these beautiful bulbs. If salad is the choice, I often start by making Annie Somerville’s Fennel and Parsley Salad with Meyer Lemon from her inspiring cookbook Everyday Greens. She suggests cutting the fennel bulb in half from top to bottom, thinly slicing it crosswise and then tossing the slices with lots of parsley, lemon zest, salt, pepper and olive oil and finally adding the lemon juice. For one fennel bulb, use half a cup of parsley, a teaspoon of lemon zest, a tablespoon each of olive oil and lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Regular lemons or even oranges are fine substitutes for Meyer lemons.
This simple salad is wonderful on its own but additions like sliced radishes, grated carrots, roasted beets or spicy greens go well with fennel, as do hard cheeses like Parmesan or Pecorino Romano. And of course this fennel salad with or without the added vegetables is a wonderful addition to a big bowl of new lettuce.
If we are already using the barbecue, I’m tempted to grill the fennel. The flavor changes from the crisp, anise sweetness of the raw bulb to a softer, subtler caramelized anise flavor with a juicy rather than crisp texture. In her Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Deborah Madison offers great advice for grilling fennel. She suggests cutting small bulbs in half lengthwise and larger bulbs into half-inch slices or quarters, each piece held together by a bit of root at the base, and then steaming them until they start to become tender, about ten minutes. Once they are lightly steamed, brush them with olive oil, sprinkle on a little salt and grill them for five minutes or so on each side. The steaming keeps the fennel from drying out as it caramelizes on the grill.
There are many other ways to prepare this wonderful vegetable, like roasting, sautéing or braising, but simply grilled or sliced raw into salad are my two favorites. The other night, unable to decide between the two, we did both, a perfect way to celebrate the first fennel of the season and to remember Italy.